March 23, 2017 at 8:00 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Josh Ockimey raced out to a hot start last season in Greenville. By the South Atlantic League All-Star Break, he found himself with a .297/.435/.531 line. Perhaps most impressively, he had just 61 strikeouts compared to 52 walks over 61 games. Things could not have been going better when Ockimey belted his 10th home run in his final game before leaving to partake in the All-Star Game.
But upon returning, the challenges of his first full season began to wear him down. Over his remaining 56 games, Ockimey batted just .152/.291/.313, bringing his final line down to a more pedestrian looking .226/.367/.425 with 18 home runs and 129 strikeouts in 117 games.
“The second half—I learned a lot from it,” the first baseman said on the back fields at Fenway South after an offseason to reflect. “It's a long season so I really keyed in on some stuff. [I learned] not everything is the end of the world.”
For Ockimey, the disappointing second half was not just a product of fatigue or bad luck though. Rather, teams began adjusting to him by employing a shift, something that is rare in the minor leagues and particularly in A-ball.
“It took me a little bit to adjust to that, but I really had to get back to going the opposite way,” the 21-year-old said. “I started realizing something I picked up from last year: When I'm hot, I’m peppering the left-center gap. So during my rounds of BP, I would just try to get back into that left-center gap. Towards the end of the season, I got back to that [and] found myself making a lot more solid contact than the first couple weeks after the All-Star break. That's one thing that just growing up and maturing you start learning about yourself.”
It was the first time Ockimey had ever faced a shift. In short-season Lowell the previous season, he only faced teams two or three times a year, but in Greenville, it is a small league and a much longer season, giving teams time to compile a scouting book on top players and implement adjustments. However, Ockimey noted that the opportunity to adjust to such tactics in the minors presented a valuable learning experience.
“You figure [the Greenville season was] 140 games and in the big leagues, there are 162 games and a lot more advanced scouting,” Ockimey said.
One potential reaction for a hitter facing a shift is to alter his approach and avoid hitting the ball to that side of the field. But doing so can play directly into opponents’ hands if it takes away the hitter’s strengths. And for a young, developing hitter like Ockimey, seeing the shift can present a major mental hurdle as he looks out at a field that seems foreign after seeing the standard positioning their whole life.
“The first couple weeks after the All-Star break, I’m not going to lie, I was a little rattled,” the 2014 fifth-round pick explained. “But I never let that change how I went to the field. My mindset is that I’m going to come here whether I go 0 for 4 with four strikeouts or I go 4 for 4 with four home runs—I’m still going to give it my best effort. That’s how I go about my game and how I go about my business on and off the field.
“There's not much you can do when you hit a one-hopper into right field and the second baseman throws you out. It’s just part of the game: They made an adjustment, now you make an adjustment. It’s like a chess match.”
One factor that precipitated Ockimey’s early season success was beginning to wear contact lenses. He began wearing them in May or June of 2015, but it was not until last season that he really became comfortable with them. This season, he has a new prescription that he feels has finally got him to where he wants to be.
The contacts immediately helped him most in recognizing the spin on pitches at the plate. He added that when he tried wearing glasses after being drafted and playing in the Gulf Coast League, they would fog up in the hot, humid Florida weather and also caused him other problems on defense.
“I still don't know why this happened, but when I wore glasses in the field, the difference between the distance of my eye and the actual glass would mess up depth perception and stuff like that. That's why I couldn't wear them in the field. But now that I have contacts in, I feel a lot better,” he said.
Though opponents’ employment of a shift provides an obvious reason for why he was unable to sustain the blistering success he had early on, perhaps just as important may be a more simple problem that all minor leaguers face in their first full season: fatigue.
Growing up in Philadelphia, weather limited the length of Ockimey’s baseball season. He then went from playing 36 games in the GCL the year he was drafted, to 56 in Lowell in 2015 and then more than double that in Greenville with 117 last season. It’s a jump that all minor leaguers must face, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“One thing I learned was, first full season, you're going to burn out,” Ockimey said. “Everybody goes through it, and that's when it becomes more mental. And mentally, I felt like I was there, it was just physically, my body was sort of wearing down on me. So I knew going into this offseason what I had to do in order to not burn out in August.”
And so Ockimey made adjustments to his regiment this offseason. As Director of Scouting Ian Cundall wrote after viewing the first baseman in Greenville last July, Ockimey first transformed his body to lose soft weight and add muscle last offseason. However, he may have bulked up too much to withstand the long season, and instead the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder concentrated on agility and conditioning this time around.
“I was running a lot. We have a thing called the 300-shuttle. I was doing those, and I was expanding it too. We usually do 50 yards down and back; I was doing like 80, 90 yards down and back. I really got back into my yoga too—I’m a big fan of yoga. Probably next year, I’ll do those [as well as] Pilates,” he said.
Struggles against left-handed pitching also contributed to Ockimey’s regression in the second half. For the season, he hit just .192 against southpaws.
“I felt my biggest thing against lefties was missing my pitch,” he said. “I was either a split-second too early or late, causing me to miss that pitch. Now I'm 0-2 and I'm susceptible to the slider, and that's a tough pitch to lay off. But you can think of it this way: If I didn't miss that 0-1 fastball, I would never have got to that slider.”
This spring, he’s feeling rejuvenated with the time off spent conditioning his body. Likely to be the starting first baseman for High A Salem to start the year, he’s not looking too far ahead.
“I have goals, but the only thing I can do is control what I can control. Going out there and doing my best to compete. That’s when I know I do my best. I’m not going out there and saying, ‘hey, play good today so you can play in Boston tomorrow.’ No, it's ‘hey, play to win today.’ Because if you do that, you’re competing 100-percent in everything you do.”
Photo credit: Josh Ockimey by Kelly O'Connor.
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.